With aid in balance, Syrians who fled Assad fear deeper hardship

By Mahmoud Hassano

IDLIB PROVINCE, Syria (Reuters) – Having fled their homes to escape President Bashar al-Assad’s rule, many of Syrians sheltering in the rebel-held northwest fear their fate may once again be placed in his hands.

Russia, Assad’s key ally, wants U.N. aid to the region to come through the capital Damascus and not via Turkey, raising fears that food on which they rely will fall under their oppressor’s control.

A U.N. mandate to supply aid from Turkey, currently via the Bab al-Hawa crossing, expires on Saturday, and while Western members of the U.N. Security Council want to extend and expand it, veto powers Russia and China are wary of renewing it.

Russia skipped negotiations on the issue on Tuesday.

Hossam Kaheil, who fled to Idlib in 2018 when the rebellion in Ghouta, just outside Damascus, was defeated, does not trust Syrian authorities to let aid through if supply lines are changed.

“In Idlib the situation is good, but if they close the crossings, there will be a humanitarian catastrophe,” said the 36-year-old, who recalls being so hungry in 2014, as the Syrian army laid siege to Ghouta, that he had to eat animal feed.

He added that two of his siblings died due to medical shortages during the siege, described by U.N. investigators as the longest in modern history.

U.N. aid across the Turkish border has helped to keep millions of Syrians supplied with food, medicine and water in the last part of Syria still held by anti-Assad insurgents.

Syria says it is committed to facilitating the delivery of U.N. aid from within the country. The Syrian information ministry did not respond to emailed questions from Reuters for this article.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said last month that the Red Cross and Red Crescent should be allowed to observe if there were suspicions of any stealing, although he did not think that would happen.

RUSSIAN LEVERAGE

The tussle marks a diplomatic front in a war that has been in military stalemate for several years, with Moscow and Damascus seeking to reassert state sovereignty over a corner of Syria outside their control.

Since winning back the bulk of Syria with Russian and Iranian help, Assad has struggled to advance further: Turkish forces block his path in the northwest, and U.S. forces are on the ground in the Kurdish-controlled east, where oilfields, farmland and land routes to Iraq are located.

Government-held Syria, along with the rest of the country, is in economic crisis. Assad’s plans for reconstruction and economic revival, which came to little, faced new headwinds with the imposition of new U.S. sanctions last year.

“This is a moment of leverage for Russia – a wrangle over strategic advantage in which humanitarian issues are being used as the fulcrum,” said Joshua Landis, head of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

“Unfortunately the Syrian people are the real losers in this battle between Russia and the United States.”

The United States wants the aid mandate renewed. So does Turkey, which exercises sway in the northwest through support to rebels, aid, and Turkish boots on the ground.

The United Nations has warned that failure to renew the aid operation would be devastating for millions of people.

“We don’t want to see these people becoming pawns in a political game,” said Mark Cutts, U.N. deputy regional humanitarian coordinator for the Syria crisis.

“It is really shameful that we are talking about reducing access at a time when we should be scaling up the operation.”

The number of people dependent on aid in the northwest has grown by 20% to 3.4 million in a year, the U.N. says.

MISTRUST

Russia cites U.S. sanctions as a reason for the humanitarian problems. Washington, whose sanctions aim to cut off funds for Assad’s government, rejects this.

Agreed in 2014 when Assad was in retreat, the U.N. mandate initially allowed deliveries from four locations. Russian and Chinese opposition whittled this down to one last year. Russia says the operation is outdated.

Delivering aid across frontlines has proven difficult if not impossible throughout the war.

“We’ve requested access for cross-line convoys multiple times … because we would like as much access as possible from all sides, but the war is not over,” Cutts said.

“In this kind of environment, it is very difficult to get agreement from the parties on both sides for convoys to move across that frontline.”

Insurgents in the northwest include groups proscribed as terrorists by the Security Council. U.N. oversight has prevented aid being diverted to armed groups, Cutts said, expressing concern that the loss of such oversight may deter donors.

Durmus Aydin, secretary-general of Turkey’s Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), part of the aid operation, told Reuters that aid deliveries across frontlines did not seem possible at the moment.

“One of the reasons this isn’t a realistic solution is the mistrust in people towards the Syrian government and Russia.”

(Additional reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu in Istanbul, Tom Perry in Beirut, Andrew Osborn in Moscow and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

UN investigator says he has evidence of genocide against Iraq’s Yazidis

By Michelle Nichols

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A U.N. team investigating Islamic State crimes in Iraq has found “clear and convincing evidence that the crimes against the Yazidi people clearly constituted genocide,” the head of the inquiry said on Monday.

Karim Khan told the U.N. Security Council that the team, which started work in 2018, had also identified perpetrators “that clearly have responsibility for the crime of genocide against the Yazidi community.”

The Yazidis are a religious sect whose beliefs combine elements of several ancient Middle Eastern religions. Islamic State militants consider the Yazidis to be devil-worshippers.

Khan, a British lawyer who will next month become the International Criminal Court prosecutor, said the intent of Islamic State “to destroy the Yazidi, physically and biologically, was manifest in the ultimatum that was repeated in so many different villages in Iraq – to convert or die.”

Islamic State overran the Yazidi heartland in northern Iraq in 2014, forcing young women into servitude as “wives” for fighters, massacring thousands of people and displacing most of the 550,000-strong community. In 2016 an independent U.N. commission of inquiry described it as genocide.

Nadia Murad, an Iraqi Yazidi woman who was enslaved and raped by Islamic State, and human rights lawyer Amal Clooney lobbied the Security Council, which then created the U.N. investigative team in 2017.

They also pushed for the council to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court or create a special court.

“Evidence has been found, but we are still searching for the political will to prosecute,” Murad, who won the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war, told the Security Council on Monday.

The U.N. team has so far identified 1,444 possible perpetrators of attacks against the Yazidis.

Khan also said that from the team’s investigation into the mass killing of unarmed cadets and military personnel at Tikrit Air Academy in June 2014 “it is clear that the crime of direct and public incitement to commit genocide occurred.”

The team has identified 20 people of interest and 875 victims remains from 11 mass graves from the Tikrit attack by the Sunni extremists against Shia Muslims.

(Reporting by Michelle NicholsEditing by Chizu Nomiyama and Grant McCool)

Myanmar police fire rubber bullets, wounding three, as hundreds of thousands protest

(Reuters) – Supporters of ousted Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi clashed with police on Friday as hundreds of thousands joined nationwide pro-democracy demonstrations in defiance of the military junta’s call to halt mass gatherings.

The United Nations human rights office said more than 350 people, including officials, activists and monks, have been arrested in Myanmar since the Feb. 1 coup, including some who face criminal charges on “dubious grounds.”

The U.N. rights investigator for Myanmar told a special session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva that there were “growing reports, photographic evidence” that security forces have used live ammunition against protesters, in violation of international law.

Special Rapporteur Thomas Andrews urged the U.N. Security Council to consider imposing sanctions and arms embargoes.

Myint Thu, Myanmar’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, told the session that Myanmar did not want “to stall the nascent democratic transition in the country,” and would continue international cooperation.

Friday’s mostly peaceful protests were the biggest so far, and came a day after Washington imposed sanctions on generals who led the takeover.

Three people were wounded when police fired rubber bullets to break up a crowd of tens of thousands in the southeastern city of Mawlamyine, a Myanmar Red Cross official told Reuters.

Footage broadcast by Radio Free Asia showed police charging at protesters, grabbing one and smashing him in the head. Stones were then thrown at police before the shots were fired.

“Three got shot – one woman in the womb, one man on his cheek and one man on his arm,” said Myanmar Red Cross official Kyaw Myint, who witnessed the clash.

Several people in Mawlamyine were arrested but later released when a thousands-strong crowd stood outside the police station and demanded they be freed, according to live footage broadcast by Radio Free Asia.

A broadcast by state-run Myanmar Radio and Television (MRTV) said police had fired 10 rubber bullets because protesters were “continuing violent acts without dispersing from the area.” The report made no mention of any people being wounded.

Doctors have said they do not expect a 19-year-old woman shot during a protest in the capital Naypyitaw on Tuesday to survive. She was hit in the head with a live round fired by police, witnesses said.

In the biggest city Yangon on Friday, hundreds of doctors in white duty coats and scrubs marched past the golden Shwedagon pagoda, while in another part of town, football fans wearing team kits marched with humorous placards.

Other demonstrations took place in Naypyitaw, the coastal town of Dawei, and in Myitkyina, the capital of northern Kachin state, where young men played rap music and staged a dance-off.

Social media giant Facebook said it would cut the visibility of content run by Myanmar’s military, saying they had “continued to spread misinformation” after seizing power.

The generals have sought to justify their takeover by saying there was fraud in an election last November won by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), a claim rejected by the country’s election committee.

In a letter read out to the U.N. rights council in Geneva, some 300 elected parliamentarians from Myanmar called on the United Nations to investigate “gross human rights violations” committed by the military since its coup.

The 47-member council later adopted a resolution calling on Myanmar to release Suu Kyi and other officials from detention and refrain from using violence on protesters. Myanmar’s envoy said before the vote that the resolution was “not acceptable”.

CALL FOR ‘MORE ACTIONS’

Supporters of the NLD welcomed the U.S. sanctions but said tougher action was needed.

“We are hoping for more actions than this as we are suffering every day and night of the military coup here in Myanmar, ” Suu Kyi supporter Moe Thal, 29, told Reuters.

Myint Thu, Myanmar’s U.N. ambassador in Geneva, told the special rights council session that his government wanted “better understanding of the prevailing situation in the country, and constructive engagement and cooperation from the international community.”

The United Nations’ Myanmar office said on Friday it was “essential that lifesaving humanitarian assistance continues unimpeded” in the country “and that humanitarian partners are given timely and safe access to the populations in need.”

Friday’s protests marked the seventh consecutive day of demonstrations, including one on Thursday outside the Chinese Embassy where NLD supporters accused Beijing of backing the junta, something Beijing has denied.

Security forces carried out more arrests overnight Thursday.

The junta remitted the sentences of more than 23,000 prisoners on Friday, saying the move was consistent with “establishing a new democratic state with peace, development and discipline” and would “please the public.”

The protests have revived memories of almost half a century of direct army rule, punctuated by bloody crackdowns, until the military began relinquishing some power in 2011.

The generals have promised to stick to the 2008 constitution and hand over power after elections. No date has yet been set for the vote.

(Reporting by Reuters staff; Writing by Matthew Tostevin, Stephen Coates, Raju Gopalakrishnan and Poppy McPherson; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Frances Kerry/Mark Heinrich)

Protests against Myanmar junta spread despite arrests

(Reuters) – Teachers and students in Myanmar rallied on Friday to a growing civil disobedience campaign as the anti-coup protest movement won the support of ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s party.

Stepping up measures to quell discontent, police arrested one of Suu Kyi’s veteran aides and dozens of people who had joined noisy demonstrations against Monday’s coup.

International pressure on the junta increased with the U.N. Security Council urging the release of detainees and Washington considering sanctions on the ruling generals.

Teachers became the latest group to join a civil disobedience campaign with some lecturers refusing to work or cooperate with authorities over the coup that halted a long and unsteady transition to democracy.

“We want the military coup to fail,” said lecturer Nwe Thazin Hlaing at the Yangon University of Education.

Reuters was unable to reach the government for comment.

The disobedience campaign, which began with doctors, has also spread to some government offices and on Friday won the formal backing of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party.

In a statement, the party denounced the coup and Suu Kyi’s detention as “unacceptable” and said it would help people who are arrested or sacked for opposing the takeover.

Army chief Min Aung Hlaing took power citing alleged irregularities in a November election that the party won in a landslide. The electoral commission has said the vote was fair.

There has been no outpouring of people onto the streets in a country with a bloody history of crackdowns on protests, but there were signs of coup opponents growing bolder – with dozens of youths parading in the southeastern city of Dawei.

COLOR RED

In the biggest city, Yangon, supporters hung red clothing, ribbons and balloons outside their homes to show support.

“We put red balloons down the whole street,” said Myint Myint Aye, 49. “This is a non-violent campaign. We want to show the dictators that all of us are with Mother Suu.”

But authorities also began to step up action against coup opponents.

In Myanmar’s second city of Mandalay, 30 people were arrested over pot-banging protests which have taken place for the last three nights.

Eleven Media quoted Maung Maung Aye, deputy head of the regional police force, as saying they were accused of breaking a law against “causing noise in public streets”.

The latest high-profile detainee was 79-year-old Win Htein, a stalwart of Suu Kyi who was repeatedly imprisoned during their decades of struggling against previous juntas.

“I have never been scared of them because I have done nothing wrong my entire life,” he told Reuters by phone as he was taken away.

Reuters was unable to reach police for comment on his arrest or what charges could be brought against him.

The 15-member U.N. Security Council released a statement on Thursday calling for the release of all detainees and for respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms and the rule of law.

But before it won consensus among members that include China and Russia, which have close ties to Myanmar’s army, the language of the draft was changed to remove any mention of a coup.

Nobel Peace laureate Suu Kyi, 75, has not been seen since her arrest in morning raids on Monday. Police have filed charges against her for illegally importing and using six walkie-talkie radios found at her home.

‘CREDIBLE ELECTION’

President Joe Biden said the United States was working with allies and partners to address the generals’ takeover.

“There can be no doubt in a democracy force should never seek to overrule the will of the people or attempt to erase the outcome of a credible election,” he said.

National security adviser Jake Sullivan said targeted sanctions on individuals and on entities controlled by the military were under consideration.

He spoke by phone with ambassadors from the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) regional bloc. Indonesia and Malaysia later said regional foreign ministers would be asked to hold a special meeting on the situation.

Myanmar’s generals have few overseas interests that could be targeted by sanctions, but the military has extensive business interests that could suffer if foreign partners leave.

Japanese drinks giant Kirin Holdings said on Friday it was terminating its alliance with a top Myanmar conglomerate whose owners, according to the United Nations, include members of the military. Kirin said the coup had “shaken the very foundation of the partnership”.

(Reporting by Reuters staff; Writing by Matthew Tostevin, Rosalba O’Brien and Stephen Coates; editing by Lincoln Feast, Robert Birsel, Nick Tattersall)

Suu Kyi’s party demands her release as Myanmar generals tighten grip

(Reuters) – The party of Myanmar’s detained leader Aung San Suu Kyi called on Tuesday for her immediate release and for the military junta that seized power a day earlier to recognize her victory in an election in November.

The Nobel Peace laureate’s whereabouts remained unknown more than 24 hours after her arrest in a military takeover that derailed Myanmar’s tentative progress towards full democracy.

A senior official from her National League for Democracy (NLD) said on Tuesday he had learned she was in good health and was not being moved from the location where she was being held after the coup against her government.

She was picked up in the capital Naypyidaw on Monday along with dozens of other allies but her exact whereabouts have not been made public.

“There is no plan to move Daw Aung San Su Kyi and Doctor Myo Aung. It’s learned that they are in good health,” NLD official Kyi Toe said in a Facebook post which also referred to one of her allies. An earlier post said she was at her home.

Kyi Toe also said NLD members of parliament detained during the coup were being allowed to leave the quarters where they had been held. Reuters was unable to contact him for more information.

The U.N. Security Council was due to meet later on Tuesday amid calls for a strong global response to the military’s latest seizure of power in a country blighted for decades by army rule.

The United States threatened to reimpose sanctions on the generals who seized power.

The coup followed a landslide win for Suu Kyi’s NLD in an election on Nov. 8, a result the military has refused to accept citing unsubstantiated allegations of fraud.

The army handed power to its commander, General Min Aung Hlaing, and imposed a state of emergency for a year.

Min Aung Hlaing told the first meeting of his new government on Tuesday that it was inevitable the army would have to take power after its protests over alleged election fraud last year.

“Despite the Tatmadaw’s (army) repeated requests, this path was chosen inevitably for the country. Until the next government is formed after the upcoming election, we need to steer the country,” Min Aung Hlaing was quoted as saying by army information service.

The election and fighting COVID-19 were the junta’s priorities, he said. He had earlier promised a free and fair election and a handover of power to the winner, but without giving a timeframe.

The electoral commission has dismissed the fraud claims.

The NLD’s executive committee demanded the release of all detainees “as soon as possible.”

In a post on the Facebook page of senior party official May Win Myint, the committee also called for the military to acknowledge the election results and for the new parliament to be allowed to sit. It had been due to meet on Monday for the first time since the election.

Various activist groups on Tuesday issued a flurry of messages on social media urging civil disobedience.

Suu Kyi, 75, endured about 15 years of house arrest between 1989 and 2010 as she led a democracy movement against the military, which had seized power in a 1962 coup and stamped out all dissent until her party came to power in 2015.

Her international standing as a human rights icon was badly damaged after she failed to stop the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Rohingya Muslims in 2017 and defended the military against accusations of genocide. But she remains hugely popular at home and is revered as the daughter of Myanmar’s independence hero, Aung San.

INTERNATIONAL CONDEMNATION

U.S. President Joe Biden called the crisis a direct assault on Myanmar’s transition to democracy.

“We will work with our partners throughout the region and the world to support the restoration of democracy and the rule of law, as well as to hold accountable those responsible for overturning Burma’s democratic transition,” Biden said in a statement.

The United Nations also condemned the coup and called for the release of detainees, in comments echoed by Australia, the European Union, India and Japan as well as former colonial ruler Britain.

China did not join the condemnation, saying only that it noted the events and called on all sides to respect the constitution.

The streets of Myanmar were quiet, as they have been for weeks because of the coronavirus. Troops and riot police took up positions in Naypyitaw and the main commercial center Yangon.

By Tuesday morning, phone and internet connections were restored and banks in Yangon reopened after halting services on Monday due to poor internet connections and amid a rush to withdraw cash.

But Myanmar’s international airport in Yangon will stay closed until April or even May, its manager, Phone Myint, told Reuters. He did not say why.

“IMMEDIATE RESPONSE”

One of the first calls for specific action to oppose the coup came from the Yangon Youth Network, one of Myanmar’s biggest activist groups.

Any street protests will raise alarm in a country with a grim record of military crackdowns.

China’s state Xinhua news agency quoted a military official as saying most regional and state leaders who were detained during the takeover were released on Tuesday.

The chief minister of the Sagaing region, Myint Naing, told the BBC after his release that he had been treated well.

“I worry for the future of the nation. We hoped for the best but the worst is happening,” he said.

The coup marks the second time the military has refused to recognize a landslide election win for the NLD, having also rejected the result of 1990 polls that were meant to pave the way for multi-party government.

Following mass protests led by Buddhist monks in 2007, the generals set a course for compromise, while never relinquishing ultimate control.

The NLD came to power after the 2015 election under a constitution that guarantees the military a major role in government, including several main ministries, and an effective veto on constitutional reform.

Consolidating its position, the new junta on Monday removed 24 ministers and named 11 replacements for various portfolios including finance, defense, foreign affairs and interior.

(Reporting by Reuters staff; Writing by Stephen Coates, Robert Birsel; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Coup prompts outcry from Myanmar as West ponders how to respond

(Reuters) – Western leaders condemned the coup by Myanmar’s military against Aung San Suu Kyi’s democratically elected government and hundreds of thousands of her supporters took to the social media to voice their anger at the takeover.

The sudden turn of events in the early hours of Monday derailed years of efforts to establish democracy in the poverty-stricken country and raised more questions over the prospect of returning a million Rohingya refugees.

The U.N. Security Council will meet on Tuesday, diplomats said, amid calls for a strong response to the detention of Suu Kyi and dozens of her political allies, although Myanmar’s close ties with council member China will play into any decision.

U.S. President Joe Biden said the coup was a direct assault on Myanmar’s transition to democracy and the rule of law.

The army handed power to military chief General Min Aung Hlaing and imposed a state of emergency for a year in the country, saying it had responded to what it called election fraud.

Min Aung Hlaing, who had been nearing retirement, promised a free and fair election and a handover of power to the winning party, without giving a timeframe.

Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party, which won a landslide 83% in a Nov. 8 election, said that she called on people to protest against the military takeover, quoting comments it said were written earlier in anticipation of a coup.

But the streets were quiet overnight after troops and riot police took up positions in the capital, Naypyitaw, and the main commercial center Yangon. Phone and internet connections were disrupted.

Many in Myanmar voiced their anger on social media.

Data on Facebook showed more than 325,000 people had used the #SaveMyanmar hashtag denoting opposition to the coup, and some people changed profile pictures to black to show their sorrow or red in support of the NLD, often with a portrait of the 75-year-old Suu Kyi, the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner.

“We as a citizen of Myanmar not agree with the current move and would like to request the world leaders. UN and the world medias help our country – our leaders- our people – from this bitter acts,” said one widely reposted message.

Four youth groups condemned the coup and pledged to “stand with the people” but did not announce specific action.

Suu Kyi, President Win Myint and other NLD leaders were “taken” in the early hours of Monday morning, NLD spokesman Myo Nyunt told Reuters by phone. U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said at least 45 people had been detained.

MINISTERS REMOVED

Consolidating the coup, the junta removed 24 ministers and named 11 replacements to oversee ministries including finance, defense, foreign affairs and interior.

Banks said they would reopen on Tuesday after suspending services on Monday amid a rush to withdraw cash.

Yangon residents had rushed to stock up on supplies while foreign companies from Japanese retail giant Aeon to South Korean trading firm POSCO International and Norway’s Telenor tried to reach staff in Myanmar and assess the turmoil.

Suu Kyi’s election win followed about 15 years of house arrest between 1989 and 2010 and a long struggle against the military, which had seized power in a 1962 coup and stamped out all dissent for decades until her party came to power in 2015.

Her international standing as a human rights icon was severely damaged after she failed to stop the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas in 2017 and defended the military against accusations of genocide. But she remains hugely popular at home and is revered as the daughter of Myanmar’s independence hero, Aung San.

“BROKEN WINGS”

The coup followed days of tension between the civilian government and the military. In the pre-written statement on Facebook, Suu Kyi was quoted as saying that an army takeover would put Myanmar “back under a dictatorship.”

“I urge people not to accept this, to respond and wholeheartedly to protest against the coup by the military,” it said. Reuters was unable to reach any NLD officials to confirm the veracity of the statement.

Supporters of the military celebrated the coup, parading through Yangon in pickup trucks and waving national flags.

“Today is the day that people are happy,” one nationalist monk told a crowd in a video published on social media.

Democracy activists and NLD voters were horrified and angry. Four youth groups condemned the coup in statements and pledged to “stand with the people” but did not announce specific action.

“Our country was a bird that was just learning to fly. Now the army broke our wings,” student activist Si Thu Tun said.

Senior NLD leader Win Htein said in a Facebook post the army chief’s takeover demonstrated his ambition rather than concern for the country.

In the capital, security forces confined members of parliament to residential compounds on the day they had expected to take up their seats, representative Sai Lynn Myat said.

‘POTENTIAL FOR UNREST’

The United Nations led condemnation of the coup and calls for the release of detainees and restoration of democracy in comments largely echoed by Australia, Britain, the European Union, India, Japan and the United States.

In Washington, President Biden called on the international community to press Myanmar’s military to give up power, release detainees and refrain from violence against civilians. Those responsible for the coup would be held accountable, he said.

In Japan, a major aid donor with many businesses in Myanmar, a ruling party source said the government may have to rethink the strengthening of defense relations with the country undergone as part of regional efforts to counterbalance China.

China called on all sides in Myanmar to respect the constitution and uphold stability, but “noted” events in the country rather than expressly condemning them.

Bangladesh, which is sheltering around one million Rohingya who fled violence in Myanmar, called for “peace and stability” and said it hoped a process to repatriate the refugees could move forward. Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh also condemned the takeover.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which Myanmar is a member, called for “dialogue, reconciliation and the return to normalcy” while in Bangkok, police clashed with a group of pro-democracy demonstrators outside Myanmar’s embassy.

“It’s their internal affair,” a Thai government official said – a hands-off approach also taken by Malaysia and the Philippines.

The November vote faced some criticism in the West for disenfranchising many Rohingya but the election commission rejected military complaints of fraud.

In its statement declaring the emergency, the military cited the failure of the commission to address complaints over voter lists, its refusal to postpone new parliamentary sessions, and protests by groups unhappy with the vote.

(Reporting by Reuters staff; writing by Matthew Tostevin and Philippa Fletcher; editing by Angus MacSwan)

U.N. Security Council to talk Western Sahara after Trump policy switch

By Michelle Nichols

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The U.N. Security Council is planning to discuss Western Sahara on Monday, diplomats said, after U.S. President Donald Trump recognized Morocco’s sovereignty over the disputed region in return for the kingdom normalizing ties with Israel.

Trump’s announcement last week was a departure from longstanding U.S. policy on Western Sahara. A closed-door U.N. Security Council meeting on the situation was requested by Germany, diplomats said.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Kelly Craft, sent a copy of Trump’s proclamation recognizing “that the entire Western Sahara territory is part of the Kingdom of Morocco” to U.N. chief Antonio Guterres and the Security Council on Tuesday.

The United States had supported a 1991 ceasefire between Morocco and the Algeria-backed Polisario Front, a breakaway movement that seeks to establish Western Sahara as an independent state. The ceasefire is monitored by U.N. peacekeepers.

The region has effectively been split by an earthen wall separating an area controlled by Morocco that it claims as its southern provinces, and territory controlled by the Polisario with a U.N.-mandated buffer zone between them.

U.N. talks have long failed to broker an agreement on how to decide on self-determination. Morocco wants an autonomy plan under Moroccan sovereignty. The Polisario wants a U.N.-backed referendum including on the question of independence.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres “position remains unchanged,” said U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric last week.

“He remains convinced that a solution to the question of Western Sahara is possible, in accordance” U.N. Security Council resolutions, Dujarric said.

In October, the 15-member Security Council extended the U.N. peacekeeping mission, known as MINURSO, for one year, adopting a resolution that “emphasizes the need to achieve a realistic, practicable and enduring political solution to the question of Western Sahara based on compromise.”

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Both sides claim gains in Ethiopia war, Tigrayans accused of massacre

(Reuters) – Ethiopia’s state-appointed rights group accused a Tigrayan youth group on Tuesday of massacring hundreds of civilians as federal and local forces both claimed advances in a three-week war in the country’s mountainous north.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government said enemy soldiers were surrendering as it advanced towards the regional capital, but the Tigrayans reported they were resisting and had destroyed a prestigious army division.

The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission published findings into a Nov. 9 attack in Mai Kadra in southwest Tigray state – first reported by Amnesty International – where it said a youth group called Samri killed at least 600 people of the minority Amhara and Wolkait ethnic groups in the town.

Non-Tigrayans were beaten to death, stabbed, set on fire and strangled with ropes, the report said, though some residents protected neighbors by hiding them in homes. The commission accused local forces of colluding in the massacre.

The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) was not immediately available but has previously denied involvement.

Reuters has been unable to verify statements made by either side since phone and internet connections to Tigray are down and access to the area is strictly controlled.

Since fighting began on Nov. 4, hundreds have died, more than 41,000 refugees have fled to Sudan, and there has been widespread destruction and uprooting of people from homes.

The war has spread to Eritrea, where the Tigrayans have fired rockets, and also affected Somalia where Ethiopia has disarmed several hundred Tigrayans in a peacekeeping force fighting al Qaeda-linked militants.

Abiy’s government said many Tigrayan combatants had responded to an ultimatum to lay down arms before a threatened offensive against Mekelle city, with half a million inhabitants.

The deadline expires on Wednesday.

“Using the government’s 72-hour period, a large number of Tigray militia and special forces are surrendering,” a government taskforce said.

‘TRAGIC CONFLICT’

The battle-hardened TPLF, which had ruled the region of more than 5 million people, gave a different version, saying their troops were keeping federal forces at bay and scoring victories.

Their spokesman Getachew Reda said an important army unit – which he named as the 21st mechanized division – was destroyed in an assault at Raya-Wajirat led by a former commander of that unit now fighting for the TPLF.

The prime minister’s spokeswoman Billene Seyoum denied that.

TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael has disputed the government version that Mekelle is encircled at a roughly 50km (30 mile) distance, telling Reuters the ultimatum was a cover for government forces to regroup after defeats.

The United States – which regards Ethiopia as a powerful ally in a turbulent region – France and Britain were the latest foreign powers to call for peace.

Washington backed African Union (AU) mediation efforts “to end this tragic conflict now”, while Paris and London warned against ethnic discrimination.

The U.N. Security Council was to hold informal talks later on Tuesday over Tigray, according to a U.N. source and an email.

Abiy, who won the Nobel Peace Prize last year for ending a standoff with Eritrea, has said he will not negotiate with the TPLF though he does plan to receive AU envoys.

OFFENSIVE

His predecessor, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, criticized international mediation efforts by “well-intentioned outsiders” that he said obscured the crimes of the TPLF and overestimated their importance in Ethiopian society.

“The key problem in the international community’s approach to Ethiopia is the assumption of moral equivalence, which leads foreign governments to adopt an attitude of false balance and bothsidesism” between the federal and Tigrayan sides, he wrote in Foreign Policy magazine.

Abiy, whose parents are from the larger Oromo and Amhara groups, denies any ethnic overtones to his offensive, saying he is pursuing criminals who ambushed federal forces.

The TPLF says he wants to subdue Tigray to amass power.

Since taking office in 2018, the prime minister has removed many Tigrayans from government and security posts and arrested some on rights abuse and corruption charges, even though he was their former military comrade and coalition partner.

The conflict threatens to destabilize the vast nation of 115 million people from myriad ethnic groups whose struggles for greater resources and power intensified when Abiy took office.

In Geneva, the U.N. human rights chief voiced alarm over reports of tank and artillery build-ups outside Mekelle.

“We have seen an Ethiopian colonel come out and say there will be no mercy. On the other side you have had the TPLF leadership say they are ready to die,” said Michelle Bachelet.

“This is the kind of rhetoric that is extremely worrying and that may provoke or may lead to serious violations of international humanitarian law.”

(Reporting by Addis Ababa newsroom, Omar Mohammed, Nazanine Moshiri, Maggie Fick and Katharine Houreld in Nairobi, Stephanie Nebehay and Emma Farge in Geneva; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by William Maclean and Giles Elgood)

Putin proposes seven-way online summit to avoid ‘confrontation’ over Iran: Kremlin

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday proposed holding a seven-way online summit of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council together with Germany and Iran, to outline steps aimed at avoiding a confrontation over the Iran arms embargo.

In a Kremlin statement, Putin said discussions were becoming increasingly tense over the Iranian issue at the Security Council, which began voting on Thursday on a U.S. proposal to extend an arms embargo on Iran, which is opposed by veto-wielding Russia and China.

“The situation is escalating. Unfounded accusations against Iran are being put forward,” said Putin, adding that Russia remained fully committed to the Iran nuclear deal.

The 13-year-old arms embargo is due to expire in October under a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran, Germany, Russia, China, Britain, France and the United States that prevents Tehran from developing nuclear weapons in return for sanctions relief.

Russia suggested an online video conference to avoid aggravating the situation at the U.N. Security Council.

Putin described the matter as urgent and urged the other nations to carefully consider Russia’s offer, saying the alternative was further escalation of tensions and a growing risk of conflict.

(Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; Writing by Alexander Marrow; Editing by Toby Chopra and Hugh Lawson)

World must not play politics with Lebanon’s pain, Iran says

By Maher Chmaytelli

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The global community should help Lebanon rather than impose its will on the country, Iran’s foreign minister said while in Beirut on Friday, following the catastrophic blast at the city’s port that killed 172 people and pushed the government to resign.

Iran backs Lebanon’s powerful armed movement Hezbollah, which along with its allies helped form the outgoing government. The United States classifies Hezbollah as a terrorist group.

Mohammed Javad Zarif was speaking after meeting President Michel Aoun, who had earlier met with U.S. and French officials in a flurry of Western diplomacy that has focused on urging Lebanon to fight corruption and enact long-delayed reforms to unlock foreign financial aid to tackle an economic crisis.

“There should be international efforts to help Lebanon, not to impose anything on it,” Zarif said in televised comments.

He earlier remarked that the Lebanese people and their representatives should decide on the future of Lebanon. “It is not humane to exploit the pain and suffering of the people for political goals,” he said.

Lebanese had been staging angry protests against a political elite blamed for the country’s many woes even before the Aug 4. blast, which injured 6,000, damaged swathes of the Mediterranean city and left 300,000 homeless. Some 30 people remain missing.

The explosion sharply deepened anger at the authorities.

“We can’t live like this. The West has to pressure our leaders to save us,” said Iyaam Ghanem, a Beirut pharmacist.

U.S. Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale and French Defense Minister Florence Parly met separately with Aoun on Friday.

Parly in televised remarks later called for the formation of a government capable of taking “courageous decisions”.

CALLS FOR JUSTICE

Hale said on Thursday the United States’ FBI would join a probe into the blast at a hangar in the port where highly-explosive material detonated in a mushroom cloud. Hale called for an end to “dysfunctional governments and empty promises”.

International humanitarian aid has poured in but foreign states have linked any financial assistance to reform of the Lebanese state, which has defaulted on its huge sovereign debts.

Zarif said Tehran and private Iranian companies were ready to help with reconstruction and rehabilitating Lebanon’s electricity sector, which is a chief target of reform.

France’s navy helicopter carrier Tonnerre docked at the port, where authorities say more than 2,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate had been stored for years without safety measures.

Aoun told Hale that Beirut needed help to “understand the circumstances” under which the nitrate shipment was brought into the port and unloaded, an official statement said.

Aoun has said the probe would look into whether the cause was negligence, an accident or “external interference”.

Victims and their representatives told reporters that only an independent probe would deliver justice, appealing to the U.N. Security Council for an international investigation and the referral of the blast to an international court.

“Is it acceptable that people find their homes shattered, their families killed, their hopes and their dreams killed, with no justice,” said Paul Najjar, whose three-year-old daughter Alexandra died in the blast.

State news agency NNA said questioning of some ministers due on Friday had been postponed as the judge appointed for the task said he did not have authority to question government ministers.

The cabinet resignation has fueled uncertainty. Agreement on a new government will likely be very difficult in a country with deep factional rifts and a sectarian power-sharing system.

Senior Christian cleric Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rai, who wants Beirut kept out of regional conflicts, said a new Lebanon was being “cooked in kitchens” of foreign countries, which he did not name, to serve the interest of politicians.

(Reporting by Maher Chmaytelli, Michael Georgy and Beirut and Dubai bureaus; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Gareth Jones, William Maclean)